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The Biggest Blind Spot in Education: Parents’ Role in Their Children’s Learning

Gibes de Gac: Forget tutors, summer school, extended days — engaging families is the only effective, affordable and fair way to spur learning recovery

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The Department of Education’s recently released national test results revealed the pandemic’s devastating toll on student learning. Reading scores fell by the largest margin in more than three decades, and the greatest losses impacted marginalized students. A member of the assessment’s governing board concluded, “I don’t see a silver bullet beyond finding a way to increase instructional time.” He pointed to a set of solutions around which there is broad consensus: tutoring, summer school and extended school days.

This reveals perhaps the biggest and most persistent blind spot in the American education system, because engaging families in their children’s learning is the only wide-reaching, cost-effective and culturally responsive way to increase instructional time and accelerate learning recovery.

Research shows that parents’ involvement in their children’s learning is a more powerful predictor of academic success than any other variable, including race and class. One study finds that 80% of the variation in public school performance results from family influences, not the teacher’s. Bottom line: Parents, not schools, are the biggest determinants of children’s learning.

Despite this decades-old body of research, education policymakers and administrators focus almost exclusively on school improvement, fixating on the 13% of waking hours kids spend in classrooms. Sure, hiring tutors and extending the school day and year can marginally increase instructional time, but it’s far and away the most expensive and least sustainable way to do it. AASA, the School Superintendents Association, found in a survey that most districts plan to end or decrease summer learning and additional enrichment programs when recovery funds run out. But unlike teachers and tutors, families are not in short supply — and parents don’t expect compensation to read with their kids. Parents’ love for their children is the single greatest, and most underutilized, natural resource in education.

While overinvesting in classroom intervention, policymakers and administrators have dramatically underinvested in students’ time outside of school. Ignoring the role that parents play in their kids’ learning leaves the door wide open for inequity to run rampant. Over the last decade, college-educated parents have quadrupled their investment of time and money in their children’s education and futures. Case in point: Wealthy parents were able to largely spare their kids from the pandemic’s worst effects by providing educational experiences at home and purchasing supplemental services. The result is a vicious cycle of intergenerational wealth inequality and economic immobility.

This is no accident. Structural racism, wealth inequality and a tattered social safety net make parenting in the face of poverty a herculean challenge. Regardless of income, every parent has the same innate drive to nurture their children. Low-income parents want desperately for their kids to have a better future. In a survey from Learning Heroes, marginalized families said they were more worried about their children’s learning than even their ability to pay the bills during the pandemic. And parents’ single biggest unmet need is “personalized guidance to support learning at home.” Families are demanding support, and it’s past time for the American education system to provide it.

For decades, education reformers have clung to the belief that school improvement alone can close the opportunity gap. But that didn’t work before the pandemic, and it won’t work now. The achievement gap has remained unchanged over the past half-century, despite billions of dollars invested in classroom interventions. When it comes to educating kids, there’s no going around parents. Educators must work with and through them to ensure students learn across the continuum of home and school. Failure to do so will result in low-income learners falling further behind as the wealthy families confer ever-greater privilege on their children.

Parents report having spent an average of 2½ hours a day on learning at home during school closures. This, of course, is unsustainable. However, even parents with only minutes to spare can help their children learn to read. An analysis of nearly 10 million students found that 15 daily minutes seems to be the magic number for substantial positive gains in literacy. The education system should ask parents to do less, not more, and equip families with the resources and personalized guidance to make the most of their efforts. Families deserve to see their kids make tangible progress toward learning goals, not sink countless hours into the abyss only to read about dismal test results years later in the news.

Winston Churchill famously said, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing … after they have tried everything else.” The moment has finally arrived for schools to try something else: a systematic approach to helping families and teachers collaborate in service of student learning. One proven way to do this is through Family-Educator Learning Accelerators. These are five- to-10-week cycles during which teachers and parents team up to help kids reach academic growth goals. Small wins lead to big wins, enabling families and educators to fulfill their common purpose: children’s success.

As the nation’s schools embark on the long road to COVID learning recovery, instead of reaching for familiar classroom interventions that have only ever failed to move the needle, it is time to rebuild an education system in which families and educators work together to accelerate student learning.

In the United States, there is a deeply held conviction that education is the great equalizer. Indeed, it can be — but only if policymakers, administrators and teachers look beyond the four walls of the classroom and support families as critical partners in student learning.

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